As part of my training for ordination as a Buddhist lay-minister, I am learning more about Buddhist funeral services and how things work. One of the things the minister showed me is memorial objects: objects used to commemorate the deceased, and pay respects.
People everywhere pay respects to the dead, but in East Asian culture, due to influence of Confucius, this is often more elaborate than Western culture. Buddhist religion in Japan has taken on the role of providing funeral services, so besides Confucian respect for the ancestors, there are a lot of Buddhist elements too.
In Japanese-Buddhism, when a lay-person dies, they are given a Buddhist name. This is usually called kaimyō (戒名, “precept name”) or sometimes hōmyō (法名, “Dharma name”).
From what I understand, in other Buddhist traditions such names are given when a person formally becomes a Buddhist disciple or becomes ordained. In Japan, lay people usually recieve a Buddhist name upon death. In any case, when someone receives a Buddhist name, it symbolizes a karmic connection with the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The person is now formally part of the community, and has hope to someday cross the turbulent ocean of life and death, the ups and downs of life, to the shore of Enlightenment.
Different temples, different sects and different priests have their own methods for deciding a Buddhist name for someone who’s died, but it’s important that they get a name, because that is what gets inscribed on funeral tablets for the home altar.
Funeral tables, or ihai (位牌) seem to come in a large variety. These are often placed in a Buddhist home altar near the central image of the Buddha. Sometimes people offer incense, prayers, food and so on, especially around Obon Season but also Ohigan and other such times.
These examples below are unused tablets that the minister showed me, and have no real names written on them. He gave permission to photograph.
This is the tablet people typically see:
The Buddhist name is written on the front in Chinese-calligraphy. Interestingly, for Japanese-Americans, the name is also translated on the reverse side into English or Romanized-Japanese (romaji):
Sometimes people also have boxes like this:
These can be used to store more than one tablet by removing the lid. Unlike the ihai tablets above, the tablets inside are much smaller and only sheets of wood, but as you can see here, they can be stacked behind one another like so:
This lets you rotate the tablets so that if you want to pay homage to a particular ancestor, you just move their “tablet” to the front and open the door. Maybe for a death anniversary or something.
Finally, relatives might keep a book of names like so:
On each page, the Buddhist-name of a deceased ancestor can be written here:
Why So Elaborate?
Western Buddhists, who are unfamiliar with these traditions, may be confused or offended, because they prefer Buddhism to have less ritual and less “cultural” influence.1 But I learned a lot about this years ago after my wife’s uncle died from leukemia. Years later, we visited his home in Tochigi Prefecture. It was my first visit. Like most Japanese home, his family had a small Buddhist altar, with a framed photo of my wife’s uncle. On that visit, even though years had passed, we lit a stick of incense in the family Buddhist altar, put our hands together and bowed our heads. Even now, when we visit, we still do this out of respect because his death was a tragic loss for the whole family. He was a highly respected man and a good father/husband.
We don’t usually do something this elaborate in American culture, so I was a bit confused at first, but once I got used to the process, it made a lot of sense. The uncle had been a positive influence. Years later, you can still feel a sense of loss. So, for Japanese culture, this is how people remember someone who passed, and Buddhism the religion helps provide a framework for doing this. Even for Japanese who are not religious, it helps bring them together to remember those who passed away.
It’s not unlike leaving flowers on a grave in Western culture, but that ritual is usually in a Christian/Jewish framework because people are culturally Judaeo-Christian. People in Japan are culturally Buddhist.
So, the religious aspect gives people a way to express their loss in a constructive way. People in every culture have felt loss of loved ones, but it’s interesting how religion is used to express this loss, and help remember the dead.
I hope to write more about this in the future as I continue training.
P.S. There’s a humorous site that let’s you randomly generate your own Japanese Buddhist name for funerals. It’s not
1 Ironically, American Buddhist-culture is really just Western-Protestant influenced Buddhism.